Ask Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador Naif Bin Bandir Alsudairy what he likes best about his lavish embassy on Sussex Drive and he’s sure to look across the Ottawa River to the Gatineau Hills and answer that he’s happy to be so close to skiing. At every other posting, he says he’s had to travel far to strap on his skis and at his last post in New York, a ski trip meant an overnight stay.
“Here I can just go skiing for the day,” he says with delight. “I really enjoy Camp Fortune.” He has skied all around the world and his first trip to Canada was to Mont Tremblant. For someone who enjoys sports, he also has the only embassy in Ottawa with an indoor swimming pool.
The Saudi embassy, which also houses the ambassador’s residence, is a $40-million, 4,200-square-metre (45,000-square-foot) white stone and marble edifice that wears its Arabesque exterior behind high walls on some of the national capital’s most prized land. The land was purchased by the Saudi government in 1978 for $900,000. Designed originally by the late architect Arthur Erickson, the building has had a controversial past involving neighbours and the National Capital Commission over its proposed height and the presence of a large guard house.
Eventually the height was reduced to three storeys by Canadian architect Domenic Meffe to make the building more Arabic in appearance. Arched and punched windows were added, creating a more cubic design. The exterior was finally finished in 2001, but a political rift between the Canadian and Saudi Arabian governments meant the embassy remained empty until 2005 when an ambassador and his staff finally moved in. The NCC recently approved the addition of a Douglas Cardinal-designed grand hall, which it says will add “sparkle” to the property.
Simple from the outside, once inside the heavily guarded entrance gates, the residence boasts a large, elegantly landscaped exterior courtyard dominated by two large metal palm trees leading to a columned entranceway. The effect is a faux desert scene. But once inside, simplicity immediately turns to opulence and elegance with the large entrance hall, all marble and wood, chandeliers and pillars, with gold brocade sofas against the walls. Photographs of Saudi Arabian landscapes dot the walls. A doorway on the right leads to the 60 offices of the embassy and consulate, including that of the ambassador; one on the left leads to the three-storey residence.
Ambassador Alsudairy, who has been in Ottawa for four years, appreciates the embassy’s location. “This is a very famous street,” he says. “We can walk to the Market and to Parliament.” His wife is a doctor at home in Saudi Arabia and of their four children, only their daughter, a student at Algonquin College, still lives in Ottawa. An older son is studying in New York and two younger boys have returned home. “I miss them,” he says.
Just to the right of the first hallway at the entrance to the residence portion of the building is an opulent powder room with gold taps and flowered brocade inlay on the vanity which serves as a warm welcome for guests. The main reception room, like other rooms in the residence, is long and luxurious with gold and royal purple brocades, carpets and chandeliers and colourful works of art by Saudi artists on the walls. The windows are swathed with long velvet curtains.
A long, narrow dining room that seats 20 has yellow faux-painted walls; velvet high-backed gold-rimmed chairs and a massive chandelier hanging from a recessed ceiling. Filling the ceiling is an oval painting rimmed in gold of blue sky with a few puffy clouds reminiscent of a beautiful summer day.
At the end of the long marble hall, one finds the large indoor swimming pool area, filled with natural light from windows that extend two storeys high.
The ambassador says he swims here every morning. Tables and chairs and faux palm trees create a beachfront setting and a bright patio-style room off the swimming area creates extra space for entertaining, which the ambassador does at least once a week. “We have to be very engaged with Canadians,” he says.
In addition, every Tuesday after 4 p.m., Saudi students in Ottawa are invited to an open house. There are 25,000 Saudi students studying in Canada and “they get homesick” he says. “So they can come here and we serve them Saudi food.” There are two chefs at the embassy and “many staff.” The basement level of the building has a large kitchen and parking for 35 cars.
One of the showpieces of the building is the sweeping staircase of wood, glass and brass that leads to the second floor family area where a comfortable living and TV room with a fireplace, a large dining room and a kitchen complete with a dumbwaiter to the basement kitchen provide all the comforts of home. Its picture windows offer gorgeous views across the river. The staircase also leads up to the third floor where there are five large bedrooms, one of which has been turned into an exercise room by the ambassador, making it so much easier, he says, than having to go to a gym every day. An elegant elevator emblazoned with its own palm tree makes coming and going quick and easy.
One of the attractions of the residence is a large rooftop terrace; the perfect place to watch Canada Day fireworks, says the ambassador. “I love it here,” he says. “Ottawa is my favourite city.”
Margo Roston is Diplomat’s culture editor.